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I have framed the essay question to be answerable with their collected data.
The less they put into the notes the harder it is for me to pull a paper out.
First-time ethnographic papers feel a bit like grabbing a rabbit out of a hat—there is some degree of hocus pocus involved.
I try and show them how this leaves little to work with when writing time comes.
I make the case for the old adage “show, don’t tell.” Because I send them out without a firm topic, I warn them that they will feel that their notes are about “nothing.” The trick then is to get down as many telling details as possible.
Reading my notes out loud lets students see that while some observations seem like they aren’t about anything, over time they can become the basis of an idea or argument.
They also see how my notes sound “like me” and that this is just fine.A full-blown paper may not always be the best way to assess what they have learned. I have found a few ways around the “too much” dilemma.For example, in my large linguistic anthropology course, exams are mandatory.After one or two visits, depending on the course, there is enough to get us to the next stage—which is narrowing to a topic/theme (the rabbit).I admit this piece is much easier in smaller courses where you can meet one-on-one with students.The hardest part is getting them to see their field site as a window into a debate, and not an exploration of the site for itself.The rabbit goes where it goes and their job is to follow.I generally choose “public spaces” as the ethics approval for these activities is fairly straightforward.I have sent all my students to the same place and have let them choose their own—both ways work.This challenges them not to leap to a criticism of the exhibit, but to attend to what happens through it. Gather and Narrow Once the students find a “there” to be at, I ask them to take field notes.I keep the instructions simple: jot notes in the field, expand notes immediately after, and write a paragraph on what they make of things.